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Cone Snails

These predatory carnivorous sea snails are found mainly in the warm Indian and Pacific Oceans and their toxins are already proving useful as painkillers. Their ‘bite’ comes from a modified tooth that is projected out of the snail’s mouth and injects venom into its prey, usually fish, instantly paralyzing it. Once immobilized, the prey can be engulfed and digested by the snail. While it’s bad news for the fish, some of these same toxins have shown painkilling effects in humans.

One species, Conus geographus, is known as the ‘cigarette snail’ because a human victim of its sting would only have time to smoke a cigarette before they died.

There is already a drug on the market – the morphine-like ziconotide -, which is used to treat severe chronic pain by administering it, direct into the spinal fluid. It is a synthetic copy of a peptide from the venom of Conus magnus, also known as the magical cone.

Another snail toxin is being investigated by University of Utah for its ability to affect nicotinic receptors in the brain which, as well as being involved in tobacco addiction, can play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and lung cancer. And with each cone snail species producing its own distinct venom, there are probably plenty more where they came from.

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